Picks and Pans Review: Richard Estes: the Complete Paintings 1966-1985

updated 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Louis K. Meisel

When first glimpsed in a gallery or museum, an Estes cityscape can turn your head. Though clearly a painting—the medium is unmistakable—it looks stunningly like a photograph. The initial effect is delightful, not least because of Estes' distinctive subject matter. For 20 years he has specialized in New York street vistas. His trademark is the masterly depiction of multiple reflections in plate glass and chrome, replete with dark interior details and coursing banks of fluorescent lights and colorful neon. Estes, 54, takes great pains to achieve these effects. When he transfers his work to canvas he combines views from several photographs, alters perspective, sharpens out-of-focus areas, heightens shadow detail and places objects such as cars where he wants them. The inescapable question is: What's the point? If an Estes painting says something that a photograph of the scene couldn't say, it's a matter of degree, not kind. Estes says, "The only reason I change things is simply to make what is really happening clearer." Estes' fastidious brushwork takes clarity to the max, but the perfection is cold and brings no transformation. It just offers you more of what's already there. The book in some ways muddles the difference even more because the reproductions—photographs of paintings of photographs—subdue the subtle but distinct painterly quality the canvases themselves possess. Those paintings sound a strange note. It is as if Estes has made a Faustian bargain, trading the soul in his paintings for the power to make them appear superficially more real. (Abrams, $37.50)

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